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By: Melissa Silmore (TPR'85)
A biting wind blows across campus, but he barely notices as he walks, fuming over the mediocre grade. Unbelievable. He’d put in hours on that tedious assignment. It’s been only a month since he began this doctoral physics program, but Jay Whitacre hates it more each day. The classes are impossible, the work is dull, and the research he came for isn’t happening.
Whitacre reaches his apartment. It’s 1994. He’d come to this university in Colorado with high hopes, following a professor he’d worked with over the summer. He’d studied hard through college, certain of his path since he’d taken his time to choose. As a child in suburban Ohio, through most of his education, he was not a standout student, though he had enjoyed science—he’d been obsessed with space and had had a penchant for taking apart family appliances. He was also involved in music (classically trained in trumpet) and spent much time rehearsing and performing.
By college, he had decided against the musician’s life. Still, he’d chosen Oberlin, where he could dabble in music while pursuing other studies. It wasn’t long before he was in the physics program, which had a professor whose research involved thin film solar cells. Whitacre was fascinated. This technology could be the future of affordable solar energy. The self-described “late bloomer” had found his passion. And he found himself behind. His math-whiz classmates had been fast-tracked since high school, whereas he hadn’t reached beginning calculus. He buckled down.
In a “nervy” move, he approached the professor for a research position—and was refused. Undaunted, he pestered the man until he relented. Whitacre worked with his new mentor until graduation, sure that his next step was a physics PhD.
Finally, here he is in grad school. Miserable. He settles into a chair with his coffee mug. He rails to himself: If I’m going to work this hard, it should be for something that matters to me—that will take me somewhere. With instant clarity, he knows. He’s leaving.
He alerts his professors, stuffs his belongings into his Ford Escort wagon, and drives 24 hours straight home. He doesn’t know it at the time, but he’s made the most important decision of his life. Later, he’ll define that decision through a lifetime mantra: “Fail fast. Move ahead.”
Move ahead to the present. Jay Whitacre strides through the labyrinth of Aquion Energy headquarters. A tall, curly-haired, Energizer-bunny kind of guy, he is a professor at Carnegie Mellon with a mouthful of an appointment: associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Engineering and Public Policy. He founded Aquion in 2008 to commercialize the fruits of his research—a cheap and eco-friendly battery.
He couldn’t be more at home here in this building in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, once home to a railroad engine foundry. He winds up, down, and through the three-floor maze, thrilled by it all. Here’s the hulking, clunking rotary calciner he snagged from a scrap yard, slowly spinning as it heats raw materials. Over there, the carbon processing room is caked with dust. Turn the corner to find an assembly machine with arms poised to piece together stackable, car-battery-sized units. Next door, Aquion has warehouses, inherited from a defunct Chinese trinket company. A solar-panel-wrapped shed out back tests a parade of batteries.
Aquion has a bold mission: change the way the world uses energy. There’s a lot of interest—especially in remote parts of the developing world—in microgrid energy systems. Microgrids offer localized power production, more recently based on renewable energy technology such as solar and wind rather than diesel. The problem is that power from solar and wind is only available when the sun shines and the wind blows, respectively. For electricity around the clock, there must be a reasonable way to store energy. But lead-acid batteries used to store solar energy are unreliable and polluting.(Continued …)